Ivan Kavanagh is an interesting director and everything I’d heard about his latest film ‘The Canal’ had primed me to expect something special. The reviewer from Irish Film enthused about it after it was screened at the Galway Film Fleadh in July. Maybe that’s why I came away from ‘The Canal’ feeling disappointed and frustrated by what might have been. Expectation can be a terrible thing, especially when it’s not rewarded.

“Who wants to see ghosts?” asks David (Rupert Evans) as he attempts to calm down a room full of boisterous school children, “Who wants to see some ghosts? GHOSTS!” he shouts, and finally the kids fall silent, although they’re obviously not convinced. And they’d be right.

David and his colleague Claire (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) are film archivists and they’re here to show the not-so-eager youngsters a bunch of musty century-old documentaries. In the shuffling quiet, staring at the sea of bored teenage faces, David lamely qualifies his ‘who wants to see ghosts?’ remark by adding “Everyone you see in these films is long since dead… so in a way it’s like watching real ghosts.”

Cue titles, and a brief epileptic montage of random gory images including an eye being investigated with medical instruments and weird black-and-white children.

The thing I always forget, from the moment Frightfest ends until the following year when Frightfest comes back again, is you’ve got to take the misses as well as the hits. I’ve seen ‘The Canal’ twice now – the first time left me so frustrated I was sure I’d missed something important, because I really liked Ivan Kavanagh’s previous films ‘The Fading Light’ and ‘Tin Can Man’ and I know he is a writer / director who can take seemingly the most basic story and give it a compulsively watchable psychological edge.

But somewhere in the five years between ‘The Canal’ and ‘The Fading Light’, Kavanagh’s edge got blunted. Maybe that’s why my disappointment feels so extreme.

It didn’t help that he also uses some of the techniques I hate most in horror moviemaking, jolting flash-frames, unnecessarily off-kilter camera angles, dead girls in bleached-out black and white (supposedly period footage) jaggedly intercut with closer-up corpse shots in all their visceral bleeding glory, dream sequences that are supposed to shock but don’t, bedroom walls splitting open…

Maybe it’s the by-the-numbers storytelling that rankles so badly: David’s wife is having an affair so he follows her to her lover’s house and then, just as he’s about to call out to her, he receives a call from their five year old son who is still waiting to be picked up from school. It is pitch dark and obviously well into the evening, so how late do primary schools stay open in this place? And then David picks the son up from school, takes him home, tucks him in bed and then returns to the lover’s house to find the door open and the couple having sex on the floor. Cue an Argento-worthy red filter as the cuckolded husband notices a hammer lying in the hallway.

Spun through all this clunky soap-opera stodge is a dubious we’ve-heard-it-all-before story about a wife-murderer who lived in David’s house a century ago, who David believes has returned to commit murders that are centred around the local canal. After fleeing the scene of his wife’s liaison, David has a nightmarish encounter in a derelict public lavatory (I’m sure I could have phrased that better) and then sees his wife fighting the ghostly wife-murderer beside the canal. Of course, David passes out before he can do anything about it (as you do) and then, regaining consciousness, returns home to find his son is still asleep and his wife is missing. Naturally, when David’s wife is eventually pulled out of the canal all suspicion falls on him.

“You didn’t kill her did you?” a cardboard copper with unpleasant acid reflux asks David a couple of scenes later, “People always suspect the husband. You know why that is? Because it’s always the husband, every fucking time.”

Luckily, the medical examiner declares there are no signs of violence except her shoe has a broken heel. She must have fallen in the canal and drowned. But David knows otherwise.

This is lazy writing and directing and Ivan Kavanagh’s ennui is obviously infectious because every member of his cast (with the exception of Kelly Byrne who, as the babysitter, is the only remotely sympathetic and believable character and is completely wasted in the role) looks like they would much rather be somewhere else. In the final half hour it gets even more ludicrous and mechanical when Kavanagh resorts to ripping off visuals from ’10 Rillington Place’, ‘Candyman’ and ‘Sinister’, throws in an icky moment from ‘The Ring’, cracking-bones sound-effects courtesy of ‘The Grudge’ and then tops the plagiarism-cocktail off with a twist of ‘What Lies Beneath’.

In fact, the best part of watching ‘The Canal’ is identifying all the tiny pieces Kavanagh cherry-picked from much better films.

There are only two sequences in ‘The Canal’ that suggest Kavanagh is still the talent he used to be, albeit a talent who is having a very off-day, and they both come in the final few minutes: one involves something nasty with a prosthetic vagina giving close-up birth in a sewer (still not a patch on a similar, much less graphic but far more horrifying scene from Andrzej Zulawski’s ‘Possession’… see? More somnambulistic cherrypicking) and the other is an okay twenty second-or-so moment right at the close of the film, immediately before the end titles, involving David’s little boy. Neither is worth sitting through the rest of the film to watch.

I’m going to reiterate my opening sentiment, that Ivan Kavanagh is an interesting director. That’s what makes this experience so sad. If Kavanagh’s name wasn’t all over ‘The Canal’ I’d never believe he could have made a film this sloppy. I hope he makes a return to form soon. Early in the story, David’s colleague tells him that last night she watched ‘Cat People’ and ‘Curse of the Cat People’. It always rings alarm bells when movies reference better movies in their dialogue, almost as if they’re trying to tie the two together in the viewer’s mind – a kind of misguided glory by association. Ivan Kavanagh should follow his character’s example and dust off his Val Lewton collection before he makes another horror film because the style, stealth and atmosphere of ‘Cat People’ is everything ‘The Canal’ isn’t.


VERDICT: [rating=2]

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white